GUEST COMMENTARY: Indiana's community assets matter

2012-04-21T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Indiana's community assets matterBy Michael Hicks nwitimes.com
April 21, 2012 12:00 am  • 

For too many places in our state, the long-term prospects for economic growth are poor. For at least a third of Indiana's counties, the long-term effect of this economic decline is a whole lot worse than any recession. In fact, just about one in six Hoosiers live in counties whose population is shrinking, and more than a third of counties had a population growth of less than 1 percent over the last decade. These are unmistakably places in decline.

Much effort has been made to help hard-pressed communities. Indiana has created an environment that is the envy of most states in terms of job attraction and business expansion. The cold, hard truth is that only a few counties in Indiana are truly ready for the type of business expansion that will happen in the next two decades. Indeed, only one in seven Indiana counties grew faster than the national average. That is the measure of our readiness for economic growth.

The real problem is that too many places in Indiana lack the broad set of features attractive to residents and new businesses. Every community in Indiana has some bright spots and some problems, yet taken as a whole, there is much need for improvement.

The first step in enacting meaningful improvement in a community is a frank assessment. So, over the past year, my colleagues and I at Ball State, along with leaders from tourism, the arts, economic and community development, natural resources, other universities and the private sector, have worked on the Community Asset Inventory and Ranking (www.bsu.edu/cber). This report and interactive website is designed to provide a data-driven, county-level grade of community assets.

The report uses information that technical research says influences the desirability of a region for residential and commercial investment. In other words, these factors point to the quality of life in a county. The ranking groups more than 100 measures into seven key areas: people; human capital-health; human capital-education; government and economy; arts, entertainment and recreation; and public amenities, both static and changeable.

The grading of Indiana's counties was an eye-opening experience. I have previously published studies using these data, but until this study, I had not fully absorbed the broad impact of these measures on economic outcomes. As part of the project, we compared per capita income and population growth with grades and individual county GPAs. Astonishingly, our grades are remarkable predictors of a county's success in attracting residents and business investment.

One oft-voiced concern is that airing of this dirty laundry will hurt local marketing efforts. But really, these are all publicly available data routinely used by business relocation consultants. The only danger these rankings pose to any Indiana community is that they might be ignored.

Michael Hicks is an economics professor at Ball State University and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research in the university's Miller College of Business. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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